Lower East Side — Because of Mayor Bloomberg's citywide sustainability blueprint PlaNYC 2030, the year 22 years hence has become a benchmark for visioning New York City's future. And in 2030, say those who track aging patterns, one of the things the city will be is older.

With 44 percent growth in the over-65 population expected by then – rising to 1.35 million, or one-fifth the total population, more than the projected number of school-age children – the city's senior services providers are making future plans of their own. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn initiated an "Age Friendly New York City" initiative, including commissioning a study of seniors' needs from the New York Academy of Medicine. Bloomberg's "All Ages Project," a cosponsor of the study, also is working on projects such as making streets safer for older pedestrians. The Department for the Aging (DFTA) is in the midst of restructuring its case management approach, home-delivered meals program and senior center operations. And seniors' advocates and nonprofits that also deliver services are involving themselves in the processes as critics and collaborators.

DFTA's restructurings – which began with conversations more than two years ago, inspired by the demographic shifts ahead – call for consolidation of Meals-on-Wheels and case management contracts, possible regionalization of senior centers, and an emphasis on “health and wellness” programming. The moves were shaped by consultation with service providers, community representatives, elected officials and others, agency officials say. “The aging network needs to be strengthened to be ready for the diverse and increasing numbers of seniors we will be called on to serve," says DFTA Commissioner Edwin Méndez-Santiago.

The changes have given rise to a host of concerns that seniors will receive fewer meals and home visits; seniors' centers will close; and programming in remaining centers will be updated in ways that narrow options and don't appeal to current users. “A whole-sale reorganization of three major segments of aging services in a very short time-frame and under severe budgetary constraints will be detrimental to seniors," said Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum.

In response to criticism from Gotbaum, service providers and seniors, DFTA has pushed back both the starting dates and deadlines for requests for proposals (RFPs) for Meals on Wheels contracting (the RFP was released May 1) and senior centers, which will be released in September. The case management RFP already came and went – with some bumps in the road.

“There are a host of technical problems ... [and] it appears that actual caseloads are larger than organizations were contracted for," said Gotbaum.
Also, like many advocates, she fears that senior center closings may be on the horizon. "The implication of regionalization is consolidation—in other words, the closing of some centers… particularly smaller centers and those in low-income neighborhoods,” she said. DFTA maintains that will not happen. “We want to support and enhance all our senior centers, not close them,” says agency spokesman Christopher Miller.

At the center of the discussion are the city's nearly 1 million seniors, who have a 20 percent poverty rate – twice the national average. About 17,000 of them depend on Meals on Wheels both for food and the companionship that comes with the meal delivery. Many seniors rely on case management services that help them find ways to age safely in their homes, which most seniors prefer and which diverts them from unnecessarily entering costly residential facilities. And other seniors visit the 329 centers under DFTA oversight for meals, socializing and recreation.

Miriam Colon directs the Baruch Elder Services Team (BEST) in the Baruch Houses, a public housing complex on the Lower East Side. Colon worries that senior center consolidation could reduce their use. “One of the things that you can count on when you age is loss," she said. "You lose your ability, your health, your friends, family. ... Now you have to start all over developing a new relationship. … And so what ends up happening is a lot of people end up just giving up – ‘I’m too old to start making new friends, to start going to a new center’ – so they just end up staying home.”
Naturally occurring retirement communities (commonly called NORCS), like BEST, however, will not be affected by senior center changes. But a center like that at Grand Street Settlement, also on the Lower East Side, would be. At Grand Street, seniors voice mixed reactions to the new model. Frances Sussman, 65, takes dance classes, which would fit into the new health and wellness model. “The activities here are challenging, and in order to maintain your intellect and not fall into the stupor of old age, you have to challenge yourself,” Sussman said.

But Raul Morales, president of the Grand Coalition of Seniors, is concerned that the proposed changes would upend "the whole lives that we are accustomed to in our centers."

"We used to have a hot meal and play [dominoes], and they want to impose activities that are arbitrary, they don’t give seniors a choice. We don’t want that! You retire; you want to do what you want,” Morales says.

Sussman hopes consolidation doesn't change her routine. “I would be very sad because I have made a world here for myself in my retirement, and it’s a lovely place to be.”

At the Council of Senior Centers and Services of New York City, a membership organization of more than 200 service provider groups, the staff has been outspoken regarding DFTA's changes. Says public policy director Bobbie Sackman, “We’re not against bringing in more programming. What we don’t like is it’s too rushed [and] there’s no new money.”

- Alice Proujansky